This is one of our favorite essays. We try to feature it once each year because it reminds us all that those less fortunate or less attractive or less talented than ourselves are just as worthy and just as important as the rest of us. This essay is based upon real experiences I had quite some time ago. We hope you will take a few minutes and read this essay…we know it will make you think.
I never knew his name until I read his obituary. You will think I’m shallow when you read this. You are probably right.
The man has been a joke of sorts in our town since I can remember. I used to see Pop-can George riding his bike around town. He’d always have three or four plastic bags stuffed with pop cans dangling and swaying from the handlebars and a dirty brown saddlebag attached to the rear of his bike stuffed with them. Around the town he rode on his rattling old bike. He was disheveled and pathetic and as unimportant to me as the curbs along the streets.
Even pitiable, filthy, old pop can collectors deserve a name. So I referred to him as “Pop-can George”. I didn’t know his real name; I didn’t care. He was just something that was. He had no purpose. He had no importance. He just took up space and served as an object of my disgust and ridicule.
He had the sort of countenance that caused you to want to look away. He looked as though he might have a foul smell – but I was careful that I never got close enough to find out. He had enormous, bucked-teeth that were disgustingly yellow, probably from decades of cigarette smoking. His dull, bulging eyes, were of an unknown color, and they were set far too far apart in his small, round head. The teeth and eyes gave him the look of an insect. A praying mantis came to mind whenever I saw him pedaling around town.
I really never gave him much thought. As I’ve said, he was just something that was. On occasion, he would pass by my house riding that rusty, broken-down, bike. He always had a cigarette dangling from his ugly mouth and plastic Wal-mart bags, brimming with pop cans, dangling from his handlebars. When I did pay some small attention to him, which was only rarely, I wondered if he earned enough money from selling those discarded pop cans to even buy a pack of cigarettes. Any thoughts I had of him lasted no more than a few seconds. He was just something that was. To me he was not a person and he certainly was of no importance to anyone.
The last month or two of summer, I saw him walking – more like shuffling down the sidewalk – walking a very small, yappy, dog. For a time, I saw him almost every evening when I took a walk. I’d pass by him, he on one side of the street and me on the other. We were always on opposite sides of the street. I made sure of that. When I’d see him coming, I would hurry and cross the street; I was sure he smelled as foul as he looked. He appeared even more pathetic and disgusting when he was walking than he did when he rode his bicycle.
He had no pop cans with him. Just that small, gnarly-looking dog, attached to a leash.
This walking thing was apparently something new. In all the years I saw Pop-can George around town, I never once saw him walking before. I never knew he had a dog at home. I guess I never even thought that he had a home. I didn’t care.
I noticed too, that every time I saw him he was wearing the same clothes: An old-man undershirt — I’m sure you know what I mean. The ones without sleeves, white ribbed-cotton; the kind everyone’s grandfather wore in the old days, the kind you saw Humphrey Bogart wearing as he slugged back a shot of whiskey. “Pop-can George” wore pants that were too long and too baggy for him. They were held up and in place by dirty, red, raggedy suspenders. He wore no socks or shoes.
Barefooted, he shuffled along staring straight ahead as if he had some place to go but was in no hurry to get there. He never looked at me but I shot momentary and furtive glances at him. His face compelled me to look away quickly.
I’m not sure what I felt when I looked at him, but it seemed to be a rather odd combination of pity and disgust. It shouldn’t be hard to tell the difference between pity and disgust, but there is as fine a line between them as there is between pity and love. Whatever it was that I felt, it wasn’t comfortable, and it didn’t feel good.
I saw him around town nearly every night during the waning days of summer this year. He wasn’t a somebody, he was just something that was – like a stop sign, a tree, or a garden hose. It makes me feel shallow and guilty to say that, but no matter how it makes me feel, it does me no good to lie to myself and pretend I saw him as a human being. Whether I liked the way it made me feel or not, I certainly don’t like the way I feel now.
Pop-can George died last week, I saw the obituary:
“Jonathan R. Rogers was born September 23, 1937 and died on November 1, 2005 after a brief illness. He is survived by one daughter, Katherine, a son Timothy, and two grandchildren. He enjoyed riding his bike, walking with his dog, Cecil, and watching college and professional football. He adored his grandchildren and enjoyed taking them to the park and on picnics. His hobbies included collecting baseball cards, coins and stamps. At the request of the family there will be no visitation. Expressions of sympathy, if desired, may be made to your local chapter of the Humane Society.”
That one, small, insignificant paragraph, buried on an insignificant page, in an insignificant newspaper, in this insignificant little town, made me cry. It made me think thoughts I didn’t want or like to think. I felt like the insignificant nobody that I always thought he was. I had mocked this poor man in my mind for a long time and I had been too shallow and too self-important to even consider the possibility that this pitiful, ugly, poor, old man, might have been important to someone.
Pop-can George was a somebody. He had a real name. He had a family and he loved them. I have a feeling that they must have loved him too – and now mourn him. He adored his grandchildren and I bet they adored him too. I have learned something. I’ve learned that everyone has a life and a story that goes beyond the way they look or the way they live. It goes beyond their social status, money, or how many material things they have accumulated.
Everyone is important; there is not a single one of us who is more important than the other. We all share the same world and we all walk upon the same ground. We all breathe the same air. We are all born and we all die. We cannot judge someone else’s life. Our time on this earth is too short and fleeting to judge others by the way they look or the way they live. I would have been a better person if I had chosen to spend my time doing something other than making jokes about the poor old man I called “Pop-can George”.
The depth of my shallowness amazes and disgusts me. I will try harder to do better in the future. It may well be that in the grand scheme of things and in the eyes of God, that Jonathon was a far better person than I.
“The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.” — George Eliot